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Nostalgia Tripping: Provincial Lunatic Asylum

Posted by Agatha Barc / April 23, 2011

Toronto, Toronto Lunatic Asylum, Provincial Lunatic Asylum, 999 Queen Street WestRiding the streetcar on Queen Street West near Ossington Avenue, it's interesting to notice the ongoing redevelopment of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Although the buildings that were demolished last year to make way for a better mental health facility date back as recently as the 1979, the site has witnessed evolving modes of psychiatric treatment, some of which eventually came to be questionable, dating back to 1850.

Toronto, Toronto Lunatic Asylum, Provincial Lunatic Asylum, 999 Queen Street WestAccording to the Toronto Public Library, the Provincial Lunatic Asylum at 999 Queen West was the first institution in the province to care for the mentally ill. The establishment of such an institution was part of the larger shift in Europe and North America toward the confinement of the insane, as their care was increasingly perceived to be the responsibility of the state. Prior to this, the care of the mentally ill (often referred to in such derogatory terms as "lunatics" and "maniacs"), were in care of their family or were placed in jails and poor houses.

Toronto, Toronto Lunatic Asylum, Provincial Lunatic Asylum, 999 Queen Street WestThe term "asylum" is now associated in popular culture with Victorian Gothic Revival architecture and imaginary ghostly appearances, but at the time, these institutions were founded as benevolent places of refuge. Over time, however, many of these institutions succumbed to chronic overcrowding and shortage of staff. Subsequently, they became something akin to warehouses for the containment of the insane, where violence was an everyday reality and medical care was scarce.

Toronto, Toronto Lunatic Asylum, Provincial Lunatic Asylum, 999 Queen Street WestThe structure, encompassed on all sides by sprawling 50-acre property, which was part of the Garrison Reserve, was designed by architect John George Howard. Construction began in 1846 and the asylum officially received its first patients on January 26, 1850. The building was considered a modern facility, equipped with central heating, mechanical ventilation, and indoor plumbing. The main cupola over the front entrance contained a water tank. The landscape was also carefully laid out.

Kivas Tully, who was later appointed as the chief provincial architect, designed the wings that were added between 1866 and 1870. It was located near the city limits, and the inmates were required to work on the asylum farm without any compensation. It was considered beneficial for them to engage in light labour, even though the farmwork was quite the opposite.

Toronto, Toronto Lunatic Asylum, Provincial Lunatic Asylum, 999 Queen Street WestAt the same time, these conveniences represented a more humane approach to the confinement and treatment of the insane. This new attitude, known as "moral management," was directly influenced by such intellectuals as Thomas Kirkbride and Philippe Pinel, who emphasized kindness, light restrains, cheerful surroundings, and relaxing domestic tasks as part of therapy. The first superintendent, Dr. Joseph Workman, directly espoused these principles in his work and treatment.

In spite of these advances, the asylum experienced overcrowding from the beginning, with further decline of quality of treatment that occurred following World War I. It was eventually renamed as the Toronto Lunatic Asylum. In the 1950s, the hospital introduced numerous outpatient programs and was renamed Queen Street Mental Health Centre.

Provincial Lunatic Asylum TorontoThe old structure started to be demolished in 1975, in spite of opposition from heritage advocates, who aimed to bring attention to its architectural merit. The original wall of the asylum, built by inmates, is all that's been preserved, mainly due to the efforts of the Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto.

Toronto, Toronto Lunatic Asylum, Provincial Lunatic Asylum, 999 Queen Street WestThe process of deinstitutionlization, which began following World War II, favoured community-based psychiatric programs over long-term confinement of the mentally ill. In addition, large-scale Victorian asylums, which began as places of refuge, were now perceived as antiquated facilities, not suited for more modern, advanced psychiatric care. First psychiatric drugs were introduced in the 1950s, which resulted in lower patient populations. At the same time, only a small percentage of the new programs materialized, and were therefore inadequate. As a result, many of the former inpatients became homeless.

Toronto, Toronto Lunatic Asylum, Provincial Lunatic Asylum, 999 Queen Street WestImages from the City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library, and Archives of Ontario.



gregory / April 23, 2011 at 10:17 am
the last photo appears to be backwards.
otherwise, a great read!
saltspring / April 23, 2011 at 10:39 am
Fans of asylum architecture might enjoy the film "Session 9", a pretty good horror flick starring the Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, it's since been turned into condos.
jameson / April 23, 2011 at 11:32 am
Gotta say that's a very weak description of deinstitutionalization. Nice job on that.
Alex / April 23, 2011 at 01:16 pm
"not suited for more modern, advanced psychiatric care. " - Are you referring to such modern approaches as "let them live on the streets"?

You can argue against the asylum system all you want but they were better off there than being homeless. I see at least a half dozen people a day who are clearly disturbed and, frankly, should be under 24 hour care where they (and us) are safe.
Chris / April 23, 2011 at 02:53 pm
and where is he arguing they should all be homeless and the state should provide no care? this is an article about the history of the site and building. regardless of how f*cked up things have become now, saying the old site was "not suited for more modern, advanced psychiatric care." is accurate. whether they actually wound up providing that modern advanced care is debatable, but you should probably stop projecting all your issues on to the article.

Thanks for the great photos! I've never seen anything other than the old oil paintings of the old asylum before.
W. K. Lis / April 23, 2011 at 03:50 pm
Whenever some new building or process is announced, it is always an improvement. The improvement soon however becomes f*cked up and ends up as something terrible and needs to be replaced itself.
Jeff / April 23, 2011 at 08:45 pm
The changes should be nutritional not architectural.
lobotomized replying to a comment from Jeff / April 23, 2011 at 11:30 pm
Schizophrenia isn't a nutritional disorder, you dickhead. And don't give me any orthomolecular shit. If this stuff worked, it would be mainstream by demand. It isn't. Lunatics are where they are for multifactorial reasons, and many of them should be protected from both themselves and the public. Asylums made sense. Homeless people don't. To paraphrase "Jesus Christ Superstar", "there will be insane always, pathetically struggling...".
Outpatient / April 24, 2011 at 09:48 am
I love to see when regulars talk about mental illness. It's always in terms of extremes. Lock up the homeless! (or something like that). 1 in 5 Canadians will suffer some sort of mental illness within their lifetime. We're hear, we're everywhere, we're you. The site where CAMH is located now on Queen Street is little more than a community center. The new location is planned to contain retail spaces and expanded services that those with mental illness can experience. Just because I have a mental illness doesn't mean I don't want nor have a right to enjoy life on my terms, no by the confines of a biased psychological diagnosis.
iSkyscraper / April 25, 2011 at 01:53 pm
Toronto's Penn Station. A shame it came down.
Agatha replying to a comment from jameson / April 25, 2011 at 03:11 pm
Jameson, thanks for your comment. As a regular contributor, I am required to limit the length of my column. This is why I often include external links, as it is the case with the topic of deinstitutionlization.

Nonetheless, I think I could have elaborated better on the negative consequences of forcing the mentally ill on the streets and the shortage of community-based, outpatient programs.
Agatha replying to a comment from Alex / April 25, 2011 at 03:22 pm
Alex, while writing the column I wasn't able to further explore the changes in psychiatric care that took place in the 1950s with the advent of medication, which is what I had in mind. Perhaps I should have made that more clear.

If you are inclined to know my opinion, you were correct in concluding that I'm against the long-term confinement of the mentally ill. However, in the 1970s, as you probably know, deinstitutionlization was about cutting the bottom line. For example, when the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital closed in 1970s, the services that were eliminated as a result of that were supposed to be replaced at Queen Street under the Lakeshore Division. This turned out as inadequate and many of the former patients ended up on the streets.

It seems that we are actually in agreement, so please don't make assumptions about me based on one column.
Agatha replying to a comment from Outpatient / April 25, 2011 at 03:28 pm
Talk about making assumptions. You didn't even realize we are in the same boat.
mike in parkdale / April 25, 2011 at 03:29 pm
I'd really like to see a writeup on the former 'Mercer Reformatory' that was just to the South West of this site. It stood under what is now Lamport Stadium on King, and there is VERY little written about it. It almost seems like there was an intentional whitewashing of the place's history (probably because some downright nasty things happened there).
Derek replying to a comment from mike in parkdale / April 25, 2011 at 04:09 pm
Agatha did do a piece on the Mercer Reformatory a while back.

Here's the link:
mike in parkdale / April 25, 2011 at 09:18 pm
Great! thanks for the Link D.
Ruud Lammers / March 26, 2012 at 11:18 am
I have been taken up in the Psychiatric Setting 999, Yonge Street, Toronto at the end of 1967 - start 1968, with a severe psychosis. In May 1968 my family and I flew back to our native country The Netherlands. I am coming back to Canada to see that address and to enjoy Ontario by using a camper for our holidays. Could you please tell me if the building 999 Yonge Street, Toronto still exists?
janice / September 25, 2012 at 08:14 am
Can anyone answer this, What was a typical day for a resident in the asylum prior to it closing? How much freedom did they have, or were their days scheduled with activities and workshops?

Appreciate any reply!

dmcg9 / November 29, 2012 at 08:18 am
I found this blog about compensation for women imprisoned at Mercer under the charge of 'incorrigible'. Perhaps it will be helpful.

The main page of the blog is here:
Corey Ferguson / January 29, 2013 at 03:52 am
I had a very bad dream last night. I dreamed that I walked in the front door of the new CAMH facility on Queen Street (1001) and walked down a hallway towards the south and entered the old asylum that was torn down in the late seventies. I walked through out he building for several hours and then left to come back out walking north along the same hallway; looked back and it was gone. I worked in the old facility in the mid 70's just as the last patients were removed. The Ministry of Health kept teenagers in its wards and by late 1974 were all gone. I worked in admiting from 11PM to 7:00AM and it was my job to check the old building with no one there several times a night. I was literally the last person out before it was turned over for demolition. It was me who handed the keys over. Some of the former patients came in and slept under the stairs of the east entrance. I would let a few of them stay overnight. Locking the doors and making them promise to use the washroom if they had to go. They always did what I asked of them without trouble and I would open the door at 6:00AM and they would be gone when I checked back at 6:30. I could have been fired for doing this, but I am still glad that I could help someone through a cold January night. The old building was worst than any horor movie you could imagine. I felt so bad for the youth that spent their days in there. The entire building spelled of human "funk and rot". The people running these facilites were so uncaring that they built the cafeteria in the basement beside the morgue. The morque was used right up to the week I left. Not only was the morgue used for the hospital it was literally used as Toronto's first morgue when the building opened in 1849 for many years. The patients being admitted by the Police at night were so very mistreated. I will never trust a policeman as long as I live. I literally would not have been able to work there for one day longer. I felt contaminated by everything that went on in there. As significant as the arcitecture was and as historic as it was. I was very glad to see it disapprear. I have no mixed feelings. I just wish I could have taken a TV or Film crew in there to document the interior along with my comments before the building was raised.
Corey Ferguson replying to a comment from janice / January 29, 2013 at 04:05 am
Hi Janice. I worked only from 11:0OPM to 7:00AM primarily on weekends. This was late 1974 when only one ward was still in use. This ward housed "Youth" teenagers. The building was literally like a horrow movie. Actually I have never to this day seen a movie that depicted as horrible a place as this was. I don't know what these kids did during the day, but I can tell you that I saw literally thousands of writings on the walls, pictures drawn in ink and pencil along with stories and poems. The smell was horrible - it smelled like rotting human flesh. By January 1975 they were all moved out. I would like to have the people that were responsible for keeping these kids in there answer to us why. The governent knew how bad it was eventually and tore the place down before anyne could see this place. I think it was big cover-up. I was in my early twenties and worked only part-tie to make my way through school.

Den / June 29, 2014 at 08:11 am
I just found out that my great grandmother was committed and lived at the Toronto hospital for the insane. We were told she died when my grandfather was 3 but it ends up she was admitted some time after 1886 (probably suffering from postpartum) and died there in 1917. Is there any way I can view her case book or get more information on her?

Thank you
DavidC / June 29, 2014 at 10:28 am
I suggest you visit the CAMH Archives. Patient records are usually NOT available but these may be old enough to be seen.

Contact: John P.M. Court, Archivist, (416) 535-8501, ext. 32159

Contact: Fax (416) 583-1355; E-mail

Open Monday to Friday, by appointment.
John / August 26, 2014 at 07:23 pm
I remember visiting the old building while on a class trip back in the early 70s, shortly before demolition. It was, to say the least, educational!
Peggy H / December 8, 2014 at 12:49 pm
The man the government hired to organize the "de-institutionalization" was furious as all they did was employ half his plan. They were supposed to have all the "community" sites up an running before moving the patients. Instead they simply threw most out on the streets claiming they were "able to take care of themselves". Anyone back then who rode the Queen Street car knows that one of the tests was that they knew to wear clothes outside - hence all the people on the streetcar wearing pajamas - inside out no less and muttering to no end. The fact they knew to wear clothes makes someone able to take care of themselves???? I think not.
Conditions were horrid but there are, and always will be, those who need to be under close supervision.
As an act of kindess I took one of these "high functioning" people into my home. She seemed normal enough right until she set the place on fire and then flooded it.
I called her "case worker" who told me "people make mistakes".
He wasn't there when I found her walking around in 6" of water with a towel on her feet trying to "sop" it up.
He also wasn't there when I found her in her "car" with a dog and every inch of the car filled with garbage.
He also wasn't there when she stayed in a Motel and left the shower running for hours causing the ceiling to cave in.
Nuff said.
Dave / March 31, 2016 at 02:49 pm
I grew up in Toronto, in the Broadview/Mortimer area. My father often took us on Sunday drives. Occasionally we passed by what my parents referred to as "999 Queen Street" or the "place that housed the insane".

It was a formidable Gothic structure that generated curiousity and apprehension as we slowly drove by. This was in the 60's. Our childish imaginations ran wild wondering what "insane people" looked like & as to what they must have done to deserve such a horrible fate! My parents never offered an explanation or clarified for myself and my siblings the raison d'etre for such an establishment let alone an understanding of what it meant to be "insane". Mentally ill was not a term they used. They did little to fashion positive impressions or empathy for the persons housed behind the walls that surrounded the building. To be put inside such a structure meant they must be "really really bad people" I thought! Negative impressions for these individuals prevailed in my mind through out that decade.

Ironically, in my latter yeas as a teacher/administrator I had opportunity to self-educate to become increasingly familiar, knowledgeable and much more empathetic for the needs and strategies required to support mentally ill persons. I even worked on or headed committees to develop strategies that would help teachers cope better in the classroom with the mental challenges they faced in some of their students. 1 - 5 persons have or will have mental health issues. Two of my siblings (who were part of the drive-by of "999") have suffered from alcohol induced mental issues. Both are recovering wonderfully as a result of wonderful personal who have worked with them. The supports within the community have been awesome!

Like the crumbling bricks of "999 Queen Street", formal and informal education and plus experience, have helped to eradicate those misrepresentations & myths of the mentally ill I had developed as a child. Dissolved, brick by brick, as I learned more of the challenges and the supports offered to individuals who may have been institutionalized many years ago but who function well within Toronto.

In 2016, education, community & institutional support groups, CAMH personnel, etc. have provided excellent programs & research that have had huge impact toward nurturing the understanding & strategies needed to work with the mentally ill in our communities and schools.

As a society, we have come so far from the misconceptions & myths of what it means to be diagnosed as "mentally ill". Informed and inspired educational programs have provided marvelous insights and strategies that have helped to break down the fictitious imaginings I held as a young child. The apprehension generated by that edifice at "999 Queen St." (The Lunatic Asylum)which imparted such negative emotions, have long since dissipated,just like the crumbling building of the 70's on Queen Street, replaced by a better understanding and empathy for the mentally challenged.
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